News

How much is is your personal data really worth?

Your browsing history might seem priceless to you, but the black market would say otherwise

by Kate Fane
Aug 22 2017, 1:51pm

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Ever heard that saying, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product”?

Well, in 2017 it applies to basically everything you do on your phone. Your age, location, even your political leanings are all valuable data points for digital companies, and apps and social media networks are getting increasingly crafty in compiling this info — and profiting from it.

Everything from that camera filter that ages your face 50 years, to the program that syncs up your “Summer Bangers” playlist with your living room lights is now hoarding your personal data. So how much is it all worth?

“It’s very difficult to calculate an exact dollar number,” says Anatoliy Gruzd, Canada Research Chair in Social Media Data Stewardship and Director of the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University. “We sense that it’s a lot, because a company like Facebook is worth billions of dollars. But it’s hard to determine per individual, because in many cases, companies will sell aggregated data, so the value of the data is the fact that they know a lot about many people.”

Estimates for individuals vary hugely. Investigations in the U.S. and U.K. have found that on both the open and black markets, a person’s info will run anywhere from a fraction of a cent for basic demographic data, to around a hundred bucks for their complete financial profile. A journalist at the Atlantic learned from advertising industry sources that legally obtained batches of user profiles are priced at just $0.005 per account — and that’s on on the high end. Meanwhile, a recent McAfee report found that stolen U.S. credit card account numbers top out at $15.

If that $0.05 valuation is damaging to your self-worth, there are ways of boosting the figure. Generally speaking, there are three types of data that companies are interested in:

  • Volunteered data: The personal content — like your name, gender, and brunch photos — that you share willingly online.
  • Observed: Data that’s captured from you by programs or websites, like your GPS location or browsing history
  • Inferred: What companies can guess about you from the first two.

Inferred data is the real moneymaker here. If you’ve shared on Facebook that you got married two years ago, and your recent browsing history shows you’ve been googling morning sickness symptoms, you just became incredibly valuable to every baby company in North America. Expect a barrage of targeted ads in your newsfeed.

So is all this legal? According to Canada’s privacy watchdog, companies can’t build advertising profiles based on individual users without your consent, but they can sell your information in large batches once it’s stripped of identifying details. But enforcing this distinction is increasingly tricky for lawmakers and enforcement agencies.

“This is a challenge for us in the policy space, because there’s no consistency,” says Gruzd. “And since there are no borders on the internet, it creates a legal challenge when different companies are located in different jurisdictions.”

How to fight back:

The selling of our personal data became the norm so quickly that we tacitly accepted it, notes Dr. Gruzd. “But we need to now think about ways to step up and have our voices heard.”

Outside of calling your elected rep or signing petitions, there are plenty of quick and easy steps you can take to protect yourself from data theft and profiteering.

  • Actually read those terms of service. I know, it took nine hours for that Australian guy to read aloud the entire Amazon Kindle terms and conditions. But if you want the sparknotes version, Terms of Service; Didn’t Read offers a TL;DR rating system for many popular websites.
  • See what you can opt out of: Even if you’ve already agreed to give up your data, you can often claim some of it back. ”Go and check your privacy and security settings to see what data is being collected,” says Gruzd. “Unfortunately it’s also a very time consuming process.”
  • Only download from reputable app stores. Companies like Google and Apple have massive infrastructure in place to prevent fraudulent apps from swindling users through their official marketplaces. Only download through official channels, and not off sketchy torrent sites.
  • Disconnect. Putting your phone down for an hour is not just great for your mental health — turning off your WiFi and Bluetooth signals when you’re not using them will also limit the ability of hackers to steal your data.
  • Use protection. Get most of your work done from the local coffee shop? Always use a VPN while using a public network, and avoid doing any online banking while using unsecure networks.

Can you profit off your own data?

Hey, if someone is making money off your data, shouldn’t it be you? If you’re a flagrant exhibtionist whose strapped for cash, there are plenty of ways to become your own data broker.

In 2013, an enterprising guy named Federico Zannier convinced 213 Kickstarter backers to pay him a combined total of $2,733 for his data. For just a $5 contribution, buyers got an entire week’s worth of Zannier’s data, which included 500 websites he visited, 4,000 webcam images, his GPS location, and even a recording of his mouse pointer movements.

Want a quicker fix? Companies like Digi.me, DataWallet, and Datacoup will gladly buy your data from you directly. But don’t expect to get rich. Connecting six accounts like Twitter and Tumblr to Datacoup will net you just $1.10 a week.